Everywhere and Nowhereby Glen Helfand
Every time I go to an art event in another city, the crowd invariably contains doppelgängers of the folks who would be at a similar event at home. There’s the scruffy young artists, the curator types, the collectors wearing simple, expensive black clothing, and the bald, spectacled critics who look like me. The situation is warmly uncanny. I can easily talk to seemingly familiar strangers about things we know we’ll have in common: “Did you go to Venice (or Basel, or Paris Photo…)?” If you’re reading this, you know what I’m talking about. There aren’t that many of us, but we’re everywhere.
This is how a global art world looks on the ground. It seems as though galleries, art fairs, and museums are franchise operations akin to hip hotels, artisanal restaurants, and tasteful department stores in every urban environment.
A few decades ago, San Francisco was something of an exception. It was an affordable bohemia that fostered sub cultures and creative risk-takers whose practices offered little in the way of economic rewards. In recent years, however, the tech economy has made it one of the most expensive cities in the world, a phenomenon that is starkly visible in the appearance of more upscale, professionalized art venues. There’s the upsized SFMOMA that can accommodate a lot more art (but loses some focus in the process) and lured a modest Gagosian outpost across the street, along with a lavish new space for local blue chip dealer John Berggruen. There have been fairs, such as FOG and Untitled, that have upped the game and viability of international sales here while offering a bit of everything to local audiences. This climate has fueled the development of Minnesota Street Project, a gallery and studio complex that’s intended to shield artists and dealers from the high-stakes price of space by subsidizing some aspects of the space and offering rentals for out of town pop-ups. Similarly, the impressive Adrian Rosenfeld Gallery has enacted a program of partnering with major galleries around the world.
It’s nice to know that SF is now a player on an international stage. Like many cities, it has entered this franchise mode where we have most of what is everywhere. Something is gained, but a sense of soul is lost: more world class, a less distinct personality.
Clearly, this has an effect on what happens on the ground—in artists’ studios that are increasingly in short supply here. As noted in the introduction, artists have scattered. New York and LA are clearly the point locations for the factors of space and thriving gallery scenes, but they are by no means the only places an artist can forge a viable career. Dialogues can be maintained online, though there really isn’t much that makes up for face time.
Like the familiar faces at art openings, each city seems to have its bastion of contemporary sensibilities: There are funky street photographers, queer conceptualists, conceptual crafters, heady abstract painters, and social practitioners. They gather at national confabs, fairs, and conferences, but they’re more united through websites than geography. Art currents are more like aesthetic brands that emerge based on identity and generation (I see this in each successive group of MFA students I work with). Some manage to create local community. One thing that seems to thrive in the Bay Area is the artist collective. Artists band together to create studio space, galleries, and conversations. In the Bay Area this happens at CTRL+SHFT, City Limits, R/SF projects, The Painting Salon, etc. These seem to pick up the spirit of San Francisco’s past, when it was a haven of nonprofit alternative spaces, but those who run these spaces, like those running tonier galleries, seem as interested in bringing like-minded artists from out of town as much as presenting locals.
I presume that Constance asked me to contribute to this issue because in 2002 I had a hand in naming the Mission School, a gesture that I’ve long felt ambivalent about—it’s as though I aided in kind of an aesthetic gentrification. In considering it now, however, I recall the moment when I wrote that piece for the late Bay Guardian (The general crisis of the publishing industry, and the lack of supported critical writing, is another blow to fostering a regional artistic identity). Chris Johanson and Margaret Kilgallen were included in the Larry Rinder-curated Whitney Biennial that year, and yet it seemed the artists weren’t gaining attention back at home. The fact that the Mission School name stuck so easily perhaps speaks to the hunger for creating an identity, for some kind of way to identify a regional aesthetic. But this year’s Biennial was touted for combing the whole country and for the inclusion of artists working out of cities smaller than San Francisco.
All of which is to say that the landscape is wide open. We work where we work for a variety of reasons—for existing communities, work opportunities, and maybe the quality of the coffee. It’s harder to know just what the Bay Area offers working artists now; they’re not going to disappear—they’ll just keep doing what they’ve been doing with fierce originality, and they’ll find their aesthetic peers wherever they might be.
GLEN HELFAND is a writer, curator, and educator based in Oakland, CA.